Into this fan frenzy steps muggins…
Yesterday I was on a panel at London’s literary crime festival in the Grand Connaught Hotel (as featured in Sherlock Holmes stories), discussing her with four aficionados; her being Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, Lady Mallowan, DBE, 1890-1976, known for 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections. The panel, which had real Christie experts on it, guardians of the Christie flame, praised her to the heavens, with one writer, Sophie Hannah, who has inherited the poisoned chalice of writing the Poirot books, going so far as to proclaim that she never reads any other author.
And I’m thinking, I’d better keep my mouth shut…
Christie was born wealthy and upper-middle class in Torquay, Devon, back when it was still the genteel home of maiden aunts and retired colonels. Torquay is a surfers town now, which is why as a young woman she was photographed with a surfboard in Hawaii.
She’s the world’s biggest-selling author and by far the most translated. Her books are diagrammatic frameworks as rigid as a mathematics puzzle that deliver mild amusement topped with a surprise. Her lead characters are not three-dimensional and have no more than three or four characteristics. She is obsessed with egress. ‘It was a fine old library with only one door and a pair of French windows leading to the closed garden.’ Her detective judges characters by their appearance; ‘she was a common-looking girl’ or ‘he had the shifty look of an Italian’.
We still enjoy Christie because the books have no time or place (there is no real sense of location in them), and they are easy and satisfying to read. She ushers us into a lost world of colonels, housemaids, vicars, butlers, flighty debutantes and dowager duchesses. At the time when they were written nobody found them realistic. Christie’s murder victims apparently received dozens of visitors in the moments before they died, and her victims were killed by doctored pots of jam, guns attached to bits of string and poisoned trifles, not far off from the implausibilities of John Dickson Carr.
As much as I enjoyed them when I was younger, the only thing I ever learned from an Agatha Christie novel was the lengths to which county people would go to show how much they hated each other. Although there is something brilliant about being able to construct a whodunnit so beautifully that you can reread it and still be fooled all over again. I’ve read the extremely dark and cruel ‘Endless Night’ three times, and always forget how it was done. Similarly, ‘Five Little Pigs’, ‘Curtain’ and ‘And Then There Were None’ are word-perfect examples of Christie at the top of her game. ‘Curtain’, particularly, is an outrageously brilliant way to end a series, written three decades in advance of being needed.
Back in the Grand Connaught, we’re all still lavishing unqualified praise on the Queen of Crime. Nobody mentions the snobbery and casual colonial arrogance of the books – after all, wasn’t Poirot Belgian? He was, in name at least – even though the only vaguely Belgian thing about him was the odd French phrase, a British affectation, and Christie’s international’s success rested on the simple sentence constructions that allowed her books be taught as ESL texts to children overseas.
Into this fan frenzy steps muggins here, who denounces ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ as one of the silliest books ever written, nothing more than a series of drab interviews in a series of little boxes. Cue gasps and much pearl-clutching around the hall as your writer realises that he is a/ out of place in this room and b/ might not make it out alive.
I had been sitting there with head nodding along when I realised, hey, I’m qualified to speak here, I’ve written a Christie-style book, ‘Hall of Mirrors’, I have a voice. And a funny thing happens. Some audience members start to agree. Later I get notes from readers wondering why the discussion had been so devoid of criticism. Surely unanimous praise leads nowhere, while critique raises questions? Isn’t this what panels are for?
The good thing is that Capital Crime, London’s first proper crime festival, looks set to stay. Well organised, full of stars and first-timers, in a glamorous setting, it was like playing the Palladium after touring the provinces.